The advocacy segment of the 2016 Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange was as surreal as it was interesting
IT died a horrible death deep inside the Ijegba Forest. It was a most painful death as fire slowly consumed it while very terrible curses rained down from ‘earthlings’ and ‘ancestors’ to escort it to the great beyond.
“Epe lo maa payin o, gbogboeyint’ enjiowoilu, epe lo maa pa yin o! Corruption, o yaku o. Ikuoro! Ina ma jo won, gbogboawon ole…” meaning, “Curses will kill you, all you looters! Corruption, die. Die a painful death. Fire burn them, all thieves,” the lead chanter, the dancer and choreographer, Peter Badejo (OBE),intoned as the effigy of corruption slowly burnt in the bush.
It was a surreal moment late in the night as Badejo, masquerades, dancers and singers went about cursing corruption with vigour. The fact that the singers were gesticulating and hurling the curses into the audience who promptly threw it back at them further highlighted the creepiness of the performance, the high point of the advocacy component of the Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange (WSICE) held annually since 2010 to celebrate the birthday of the Nobel Laureate. This year’s event was themed ‘Corruption: A battle for the arts’
The night had begun tamely enough inside the Ijegba Forest Amphi theatre close to Soyinka’s Abeokuta, Ogun State home with Yinka Ola-Williams performing an excerpt from ‘The Lost Poetry of Prof. Soyinka’. Rich in imagery and borrowing generously from Yoruba language to celebrate the child and childless persons amongst others, the poems were first performed by Soyinka himself in Bayreuth, Germany in 1973 but had become lost to the world. Ola Williams, backed by singers and dancers did a fine job ‘resurrecting’ them.
The Ogun State Cultural Troupe and another group of actors were also not left out of the opening performances. While the Oguntroupe entertained the audience with a variety songs and dances, the other group presented a hilarious drama on corruption, a combination of Soyinka’s ‘Riceee’ and ‘EtikoRevoWetin?’ directed by Dr. Tunde Awosanmi.
Using their artistic license to the full, they parodied the National Assembly and the fat allowances of lawmakers in a country where majority are suffering. The political parties with their opaque ideologies and policies were not spared by the artists who also took careful aim at the executive who promised people change but have instead been feeding them with “bullshit” while reneging on their promises. “Abeg stop the bullshit. Give us the change we voted for,” they chorused at the end of the enjoyable piece which interspersed the entire advocacy session.
‘We have a father’
Speaking after the first set of performances, Emeritus Professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan and the guest of honour, Femi Osofisan, began by saluting Soyinka 82 times. He noted that celebrating Soyinka’s legacy takes many forms and that, “I’m happy to be part of that legacy; he inspired us to use art for advocacy and for humanity.” Osofisan, who clocked 70 recently and who the advocacy session, was dedicated to added that though corruption is interpreted mainly in monetary terms, it goes beyond that.
Using the ‘Babalawomowabebe’ song of the greedy tortoise folktale to buttress his point, the dramatist said “corruption is a moral thing and it takes off from small things. It starts from within you. We all know about the tortoise’s greed, this greed has taken over this country. But it is important that children should know that there was a time it wasn’t like this. This is a battle we all need to fight. If you cheat at an examination, when you pay for your child to gain admission into a school, when you go for something you know that you don’t merit, that is corruption. In fact, moral lapse has economic implication. And the kind of economy that we have, everybody is forced to steal. If we don’t restructure the economy, this [corruption] will go on.”
Ever a dramatist, Osofisan ended with a song in honour of Soyinka. “Ta lo so p’ani baba” (who says we don’t have a father), he began to sing and dance as the audience joined him.
Physician, heal thyself
Delivering the first keynote titled ‘Corruption: A battle for the arts’, the public commentator, Tunde Fagbenle, said the arts is as immersed in corruption as the society it parodies. For him, it’s a case of the physician healing him/her self firstas plagiarismand sex for roles in Nolywood amongst others, are corruption in the arts.
He held that the arts have a major role to play in the battle against corruption and that government needs to involve it in its current efforts. Recalling instances of previous interventions of art in corruption, Fagbenle cited how the press hounded President Nixon out of office; how the Nigerian media fought past dictatorships and the activist theatre of the late Chief Hubert Ogunde. He also touched on how Soyinka himself held a radio station hostage in the 60s and concluded that: “arts have a leading role to play not just against corruption but also corrupting influences. Corruption ruins and absolute corruption ruins absolutely.”
The second keynote speaker, Professor Ojewuyi, used Soyinka’s famous play, ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’, to give a profound treatise on corruption.He said that corruption is ruining our dreams as a country and briefly touched on the fracas between Senators RemiTinubu and Dino Melaye. Continuing, Ojewuyi highlighted the roles of the market women and their leader, Iyaloja in the play. The teacher in the Department of Africana Studies at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois, US, also explained the political and spiritual corruption in the play and its presence in Nigeria. Ojewuyi lauded women in the text and the society generally, noting that despite their presence at the beginning and end of life, we abuse them. He likened Nigerian leaders to the selfish Elesin in the play.
Tame that beast!
The panel session with the theme ‘Corruption as it affects children, women and our humanity’ and moderated by Sola Salako was no less interesting. Media professionals Kadaria Ahmed, Rose Moses and daughter of the late Chief MKO Abiola, HafsatAbiola Costello, were the panellists.
Responding to Salako’s question about the role of women in corruption, Abiola-Costello gave an illuminating answer using Soyinka as example. She said she went to clean Soyinka’s apartment when he was in the US and was surprised to see just six black shirts, two grey ones and about four trousers in his wardrobe. This, she said, surprised her considering Soyinka’s fame but that the lesson she learntis that we should be contented with whatever we have.
“Corruption starts inside us; are we satisfied with what we have? Each person has a beast inside us; we need to control that beast and not feed it by being content with what we have and not living beyond our means,” she said, adding that some women would love to wear matching asoebi, shoe, bag and jewellery when they can’t afford it. Others, the founder of KIND said, would put their children in private schools they can’t afford. “It all depends on our mindset; we must wake up and answer those questions. Corruption is also not just about leaders, it’s about followers too.”
For Ahmed, corruption makes us lose our humanity. “The minute you begin to abuse your power, you begin not to be normal. If you care about other people, I don’t think you will be corrupt.”
Rose said women could be victims of corruption as well as participants. She added that the effect of corruption is evident on the high incidence of maternal mortality and inadequate healthcare in the country.
On whether it was need that made some people corrupt, Ahmed said grand corruption starts from small things. For Abiola-Costello, the important thing is living within one’s means and that to tackle corruption, institutions and systems need to be strengthened.
Chair of the occasion, Professor Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka also gave a speech on corruption and why it needs to be confronted.
It was after the panel discussion and just before the anniversary cake was cut that Badejo and the masquerades emerged to curse and burn corruption. But corruption won’t die easily. The ‘cor’ in its spelling refused to burn completely, signifying that both artists and other stakeholders in the Nigerian project have a real battle on their hands.